The Accidental Time Machine is one of those books that invariably reminds me of those old Monty Python routines in which Graham Chapman, dressed in his colonel's uniform, would barge indignantly onto the set and demand that everyone stop the sketch because it had gotten too silly. In fact, I can hear his hilarious gruff bark even now. "Stop this! It's silly! It started out as a nice little idea about a fellow with a time machine, and now it's just got silly!"
I hate it when I have to feel this way about a book, but then, it wasn't me who put talking bears in it. The Accidental Time Machine does indeed get off to a swell start. The story opens around the middle of this century. Matt Fuller is an MIT grad student working, without much conviction, on his dissertation, and putting in hours in the physics lab as a research assistant. One day he pushes a button on one of those machines-that-go-ping, and sees it vanish before his eyes, only to rematerialize seconds later. As the machine was not exactly designed to do that, Matt is understandably intrigued. A few more experiments undertaken at his shabby apartment reveal that the machine is functioning as some kind of one-way time machine, disappearing and then reappearing in the future at exponential intervals. Each time it reappears it takes about twelve times longer to do so each time. There seems to be no way to reverse the process.
Matt quickly ascertains it's safe for him to travel along with the machine, but his first trip lands him in legal hot water when he discovers, upon reappearing many days later, that the friend who assisted him in this particular jump has died under suspicious circumstances. But a mysterious benefactor bails Matt out of jail to the tune of a million dollars, and Matt, convinced this individual must be himself from a distant future in which the secret to going backwards in time has at last been unearthed, resolves to travel on.
The book looks like it's going to settle in to a fantastic satirical groove, once Haldeman has Matt emerge in the late 23rd century to discover America (or at least the eastern seaboard) has become a backwater theocracy, in which the second coming of Christ is believed to have happened, all history and technological know-how prior to this event has been expunged, and even his own alma mater has morphed into the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy. But Haldeman only has Matt linger here just long enough to collect his very own Girl Friday — who is naturally young, hot, and both virginal and sexually uninhibited at once — before zipping off into remote futures for encounters with evil AI's, a terraformed moon, bioengineered dinosaurs run amok (a deliberate spoof of Jurassic Park there) and, yes, the aforementioned talking bears.
Whatever degree Haldeman intends us to take any of this seriously rather pales beside the fact that, SFnally speaking, he's squandering some great opportunities here. We're never in any one of these funhouse futures for long enough to get a real handle on things, to understand why and how the world developed this way. I would have been most intrigued to glean a better understanding of events that led directly from Matt's past to the formation of the 23rd century theocracy. I also think the novel could have been much stronger had Haldeman chosen to leave Jeff there to make his way as best he could, spreading the forbidden heresy of quantum physics or something. Instead, we get a frenetic final series of chapters, in which millions of years are traversed at the pace of a music video cut together for the ADHD crowd, before Jeff finally discovers the Secret he's been after all along. It leaves, one might say, something to be desired.
So yes, it all starts out as a nice little book about a hapless student who finds himself an unwitting time traveler. And then it just gets silly. And as Col. Chapman might go on to suggest, Haldeman's readers might be much better off with something nice and military. Like The Forever War.